Vermont residents head to Town Meeting Day this week
MONTPELIER -- Vermonters will take on budgeting, elections and issues like energy and public banks this town meeting day.
At the annual meeting, Vermonters discuss electing municipal officers, approve budgets, examine zoning bylaws, authorize long-term capital borrowing and decide the operating calendar for the town. Issues that will be taken up across the state Tuesday include familiar topics like school board budgets and local elections.
Executive Director of Vermont League of Cities and Towns Steven Jeffrey said in an email that school budgeting issues are usually a major focus.
"As property taxes go up, the issue of school budgets takes more of a center stage," Jeffrey said.
Besides concrete items like spending and bylaw revisions, many towns also take up non-binding resolutions and poll questions.
Jeffrey said the items have "little place on the agenda when the purpose of the meeting is to actually govern ourselves" but supporters of resolutions and poll questions believe it's a way for citizens to voice their opinions on big topics and discuss broader issues.
Poll questions and resolutions in years past have ranged from asking residents if they think President George W. Bush should be impeached to thoughts on tar sands oil. This year, Vermont Public Radio reports that at least 20 communities will take up a resolution about supporting the concept of a public bank.
Energy is also a hot topic for towns in the path of a new gas pipeline. At least two towns, Shoreham and Cornwall, will be taking up non-binding articles in the matter. In Lowell, a tiny northern town with a population of 738 people, a non-binding anti-wind power article was added to the Town Meeting agenda this year by court order after it had been passed over at a Town Meeting Day two years ago without discussion.
Lowell resident Ed Wesolow, who took the issue to the Vermont Supreme Court, said the ruling to put it back on the agenda was a win for democracy.
"All this is, is asking the minority to have a voice to express the fact that we don't like the tactics that have taken place or the ramifications that will hurt this town in the long run," Wesolow said in January.
Lowell is home to Green Mountain Power's Kingdom Community Wind project. In 2010, before it was built, 75 percent of residents at Town Meeting Day voted in favor of the project. Now it supplements the town budget. However, the Lowell wind project generated fierce opposition from those who felt it would scar the ridgeline and provide no environmental benefit.
GMP spokeswoman Dorothy Schnure disagreed strongly with the language of the anti-wind question, which says the project threatens to turn the town into a "slum" and could cause clinical depression.
"We're good neighbors in the community," Schnure said. She also noted that right after that article would be discussed, the town would move on to deciding how to use the money they've received from Kingdom Community Wind.
Some items also stand to potentially oppose existing law, like Burlington's town meeting items on gun control.
The three articles on the agenda would allow police officers to confiscate guns, ammo or weapons from suspected domestic abusers, ban firearms from locations with liquor licenses and require firearms to be locked when not with the users.
The measures spurred spending from groups on both sides of the issue. Pro-gun organizers like Vermont Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs Vice President Llewelyn Evan Hughes III say the articles would violate a Vermont statute passed in the 1980s.
Ann Braden, president and co-founder of Gun Sense Vermont said the Burlington gun measures were commonsense ideas to make the city safer and only came up because residents were dissatisfied with a lack of state and national action on gun control.
Vermont's long tradition of town meeting stretches back to 1762 when the first recorded town meeting in state lines was held in Bennington, according to the Vermont Secretary of State's website.
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